Here’s a scary thought for Halloween : the San Diego Chargers might be just an injury away from becoming the Tennessee Titans. Although the teams have encountered different fortunes in the won-loss department through seven weeks of the season, both teams suffer from the same malaise: a porous defense that cannot get off the field, and a defense that consistently is unable to exert pressure on the opposing quarterback.
In fact, both teams have a number of spooky similarities on the defensive side of the ball: the Chargers have recorded a total of 12 QB sacks, the Titans 11. The Chargers have seven picks for the season, the Titans four. But five of the Chargers’ interceptions have come against the Raiders and Kansas City. Like the Titans, they have very few against decent teams.
Not only have both teams struggled to exert pressure on the opposing quarterbacks, but they also have an extremely difficult time getting off the field on third down; before last week, the Chargers ranked near the bottom of the league in that department along with the Titans.
Where a discernible difference is noted, however, is that the Chargers are particularly bad against the run, averaging a ghastly 135 ypg allowed, whereas the Titans secondary have played like phantoms, allowing 19 passing TDs to date. Different problems, same result. Yet, the Chargers secondary has not done particularly well, either, as evidenced by the sudden termination of starting safety Clinton Hart, and the demotion of nickel back Antoine Cason. And, if the Chargers pass defense looks much healthier than the Titans, it is in part due to the sieve run defense that San Diego fields every Sunday.
Of course, there are other similarities: both teams bemoan the loss of a premier defensive tackle; Albert Haynesworth via free agency in Tennessee, and Jamaal Williams in San Diego through a nightmarish season ending injury. These losses appear to be immeasurable, particularly in San Diego, where a cadre of replacements struggle to fill the shadow left by Williams.
So, if the Chargers and Tennessee are really this close in performance, the question becomes: Why is San Diego 3-3 and the Titans winless? The great difference maker, of course, is that the Chargers have a thoroughly competent quarterback in Phillip Rivers, and two game changing receivers in Vincent Jackson and Antonio Gates. (I would add that Malcolm Floyd is emerging as a receiver with game changing abilities, but his numbers are a little thin so far.)
In addition, the Chargers have benefited from some special team magic from Darren Sproles, who has a knack for making great runbacks when the team needs one most.
But clearly Rivers is the key. Though his numbers don’t always show it, he has put the team in a position to win in virtually every game this season (we’ll exclude the debacle in Pittsburgh even though they scored three fourth quarter TDs). And, he has done so without any running game to speak of, and an offensive line that has been inconsistent. (It doesn’t tax our memories too much to recall the 4th-and-2 in the Baltimore game where Ray Lewis stuffed Sproles inside the Ravens twenty, or last week, where LT failed to penetrate the endzone repeatedly against the Chiefs.
Inside the red zone, the Chargers are a one dimensional team. Pass, or bring on Nate Kaeding. Outside the red zone, the same: pass, or punt.
The Titans have the opposite problem: Healthy Chris Johnson has rushed for 596 yards, averaging 6.3 yards per carry. Critics point out that Johnson’s numbers benefit from a few wild scampers, that he is often stuffed at the point of attack. That may be true, but I would take his numbers over 40th ranked Tomlinson, (who, incidentally is referred to as Shaun Tomlinson in our house, or Ladainain Alexander.)
Back to Rivers. Fifth in the league in passing yards with 1787, but really he is second because Brady, Schaub, and Roethlisberger all have a game in hand. Only Peyton Manning has a better yards per game average than Rivers, who is a hair short of 300 YPG, and also only because Chris Chambers has forgotten how to catch. Rivers has 10 passing touchdowns, which is admittedly pedestrian, but it must be hard to boost that stat without a credible running attack, and also difficult spending most of your time on the sidelines watching the defense falter on third-and-anything.
Rivers is the difference. A season ending injury launches Billy Volek into the starting gate, and that, my friends, is no trick or treat. That, in fact, looks very much like the Tennessee Titans.